The first time Sevillano neighbors invited us over for New Year’s Eve, our host casually added, “And don’t forget to bring your red underwear and grapes!” I said, “Yes, of course,” as if I knew what he was talking about, and hastily consulted Yolanda, my Spanish teacher, on the finer points of local New Year’s Eve etiquette.
Here in Spain, she explained, to ensure good luck in the year ahead you’re supposed to ring in the New Year sporting bright red underwear that you’ve received as a gift. The local shops are full of every conceivable style, from nice to very naughty indeed. I was greatly relieved to hear that I was not expected to show everybody my new red lingerie but simply wear it under my party dress. I later learned that residents of the Spanish town La Font de la Figuera don’t get away so easily; every year they strip down to their scarlet undies and run through the center of town as part of their New Year’s celebrations. Note to self: don’t even consider moving to that town!
“Where do the grapes come in?” I asked. Yolanda told me that at midnight on December 31st it’s customary — no, mandatory — to consume twelve grapes, one at each tolling of the clock; for every one you swallow at the right moment, you’ll have a month of good luck in the coming year.
As we sat around in our red underwear (and outerwear) sipping cava and waiting for midnight to arrive, our neighbors explained that it’s impossible to get your grapes down fast enough unless you peel them first. And as I soon learned, skinning small, round, slippery fruit after several glasses of cava takes some practice. Nowadays, I do what so many Spaniards do: I buy special cans that contain twelve peeled, waterlogged grapes that are perfect for chugging.
I naturally assumed that the grape tradition sprang from some saint’s miracle or a 13th century edict by King Alfonso the Wise, but later I learned it was born from modern commercial greed. In 1909 the grape growers of Alicante had such a surplus that in desperation they came up with this new “tradition” as a way to get the public to take the extras off their hands. Those grape growers must have been wearing extra-powerful red underwear that year, because it caught on in a huge way, and ever since then, downing 12 grapes at midnight has defined New Year’s Eve in Spain.
Wherever you’re ringing in the New Year, I hope you’ll have your red underwear on (with or without outer clothing) and a dozen slippery grapes ready to pop into your mouth as midnight chimes. We may think this is all silly superstition, but why take a chance? I think we could all use a little extra luck in 2013, don’t you?
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've recently completed a five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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